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This course will focus on the history and sociology of genetics, developmental, and evolutionary biology. Topics will also include the relationships of science and theology; feminist, Marxist, and Creationist critiques of biology and biotechnology; and contemporary issues of cloning, stem cell research, and sex selection.

Dr. Scott Gilbert302 Martinsgilber1x8049
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"Biology is politics by other means, and it also generates reliable information about the empirical world." 
-Sandra Harding

Here is the paradox of modern biology. Biology is a crucially important science not only for giving us theories about how the living world functions but also for the way it packages its data into stories. So the first rationale for this course is to study the "stories biologists tell." We have not outgrown Aesop, and we often look to biology to tell us what is nature’s way of doing things. Biology has always been in a unique position to define race, gender, and humanity, to determine what is normal or abnormal behavior, what is normal or abnormal sexuality, and so forth. Biology also tells remarkably important "origin" stories--the origin of organisms, the origin of sex, the origin of humans, the origin of consciousness--that inform who we think we are. If "we become what we think of ourselves," then it matters whether we see humans (i.e., us) as killer apes or benevolent cooperators. If you think that biology has proven that females are evolutionarily or developmentally inferior to males, it makes a difference to your self-identity and to the way you interact with other people. If you think that biology has proven that one ethnic or racial group is superior to another, then it matters to your self-definition and to what behaviors you would permit regarding others. (Less than seventy years ago, biologists made both those claims about race and gender.) The "argument from Nature" has many philosophical fallacies, but it is still remarkably strong. To say that a behavior is "unnatural" is as bad today as it was for John Stuart Mill. So a critique of biology is important for constructing our own identities. 

Second, my belief is that "Intro Bio" is replacing "Western Civ. " as the course required of voting members of the society to make informed decisions about government policy. We are now in national debates about pursuing research on human embryonic stem cells, teaching evolution, prohibiting genetically modified crops, protecting forestlands, allocating health care resources, cloning, and selecting the sex of unborn children. It is also the twentieth-first birthday for the first person conceived through in vitro fertilization. How has in vitro fertilization impacted our society? Did anyone ever vote on it? What had been frontpage headlines about the "test-tube baby" is now routine hospital practice (for members of some socioeconomic groups). In addition to its obvious importance in issues of health care and environmental concern, biology is also seen as the final court for issues involving legality, educatability, an even affirmative action. So a critique of biology is important for our understanding of social issues.

The purpose of this course is to look critically at the "stories" being told by biology (and biologists) and to see if they are the only stories that fit the data. To do this, we are going to look historically at some of the major stories of the past and see if they are linked to present-day biology.  


Course axis:

Course means pathway, like a watercourse. And pathways are both permissive and restrictive. They allow you to see some things and they hide other things. They also branch, and you cannot go down all possible paths. This year's path will extend from Aristotle to the human genome projects. I will give a lecture for the first half of the class. Then, after a brief break, we will get together for a more informal discussion of the issues raised in the week's reading. Each person is to bring to class a page containing some idea generated by the reading and three discussion questions. These will be turned in to me at the beginning of each class. These will be graded and used as the basis for the discussion session. The questions can be "internal", that is to say, they can relate directly to the content of what we read. Or they can be "external", relating what we read to something that you have read or discussed in some other course. We hope to take advantage of our heterogeneity. After the general discussion, one or two of the "laboratory groups" will be asked to report on their findings that week. 

The main books we will be reading include:

The Great Chain of Being (A.O. Lovejoy)
Nature’s Body (L. Schiebinger)
Darwin: Life of a Tormented Evolutionist (A. Desmond and J. Moore)
Darwinian Revolution (M. Ruse)
Eighth Day of Creation (Judson)
Gene Wars (Cook-Degan)
The Second Creation: Dolly and the Age of Biological Control (Wilmut, 
Campbell, Tudge)
The Biotech Century - A Second Opinion (J. Rifkin. 1997).

Laboratories in history and bioethics:

What! What laboratories? No, we're not going to try to recreate the experiments of Pasteur or Nirenberg (although that would not be a bad thing). But there is going to be an ongoing "laboratory " to give this course some time parity with other biology courses. And it should be really interesting. I have identified 8 questions where historical and philosophical issues may play important roles in the research and teaching of contemporary developmental biology. These issues are

1. When does human life begin?
2. Should we allow parents to select the sex of their offspring?
3. Should we allow parents to select or enhance the hereditary traits of their 
offspring through genetic manipulation? ("germline enhancement")
4. What is a "normal" phenotype?
5. Should we allow reproductive cloning?
6. Should we allow experimentation on stem cells or embryos?
7. Is genetic reductionism harmful and what might its consequences be?
8. When should we be allowed to kill animals for research or teaching?

I am hoping that we can work in pairs on each of these topics. I would like you to find the philosophical arguments and the historical data for the different positions. Some of your findings may surprise you. (For instance, there are at least five philosophical positions for when human life begins, and until 1869, the position of the Catholic Church was that human life began on day 40, a position that can be traced back to Aristotle.) 

    So I would like each pair to introduce the problem, discuss the ethical concerns of the problem in historical detail, discuss the biology of the problem, and then synthesize the major views and what contemporary science has to say (if anything) about them. I am especially pleased that Emily Zackin ('02) has said that she would be the "lab T.A." for this course, and she and I will be able to assist you with finding sources for this work. 

    Each of these "papers" should be made in HTML and be able to be placed on the web. However, instead of going onto the web, I am hoping to have them published in a CD-ROM. This CD-ROM is available to everyone teaching developmental biology, and this will be a way of making this knowledge accessible to scientists and science students. More about that in class. 

These bioethics websites have now been published online and can be found at the education site linked to the Developmental Biologytextbook.

Final Paper:

This course is largely for you to use to integrate and comprehend your own interests in biology. We're just using molecular biology as an example. Your paper can take any area of biology and analyze it historically and/or philosophically. History of biology is a huge and largely unexplored area (and it is only recently that it has gained funding capable of attracting people to enter it as a profession). So here is your chance to take a topic that fascinates you and to delve deeply into it. I will be glad to advise you on topics and resources. Start thinking about this as you do your reading. The circaduodecim-page paper must be in by the last day of exams. 

The grade will consist, in equal parts, of (1) participation in the class discussion, (2) the papers turned in at the beginning of each class, (3) the final paper, and the (4) laboratory report. There will be no final examination. 

TENTATIVE SYLLABUS: Thursday afternoons Martin 213

The readings listed will usually be supplemented by one or two short articles that relate the readings to contemporary issues. 

Please read the following before class: 

Week 1 (1/24. Organization, Major paradigms): Great Chain pp. 1-66. 
Aristotle, Parts of Animals Book I, I and Generation of Animals Book II, I-iii. These can be accessed at :
(You do not need to hand in a paper on this).

Week 2 (Major paradigms): Great Chain of Being, pp. 66- conclusion
Reserve readings: 
   Small, M. 1991. Sperm Wars. Discover (July) 48 - 53.
   Biology and Gender study Group. 1988. The importance of feminist 
critiques for contemporary cell biology. Hypatia 3: 61 - 76. 
   Horowitz, M. C. 1986. Aristotle and women. J. Hist. Biol. 9 : 183 - 213. 

Week 3 (Renaissance and enlightenment): Nature’s Body

Week 4 (Natural theology; Homology debates): Darwinian Revolution.

Week 5 (Darwin and Darwinism): Darwin, pp. 1-390

Week 6 (Darwin and Darwinism): Darwin, pp. 391-677.

Week 7 (Modern Synthesis) TBA
Spring break

Week 8 Eugenics (TBA)

WEEK 9 (Molecular biology of the gene): Eighth Day

Week 10 (Human genome projects): Gene Wars

Week 11 (Human genome projects): Gene Wars; Biotech Century 

Week 12 (Opposition to human genome projects) Biotech Century

Week 13 (Cloning and biotechnology: Dolly and Polly) Cloning

I hope that this will be a fascinating class for each of us. My own feeling is that there are very few real "crimes against nature." Making biology boring, however, is one of them. 

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